Nadkarni: Northwestern fans rewarded after years of heartbreak

Kaitlin Svabek/Daily Senior Staffer

The Gator Bowl trophy, the first bowl trophy won by the Wildcats since 1949, is held up at the end of Saturday's game.

Rohan Nadkarni, Sports Editor

Don’t breathe.

Don’t relax.

Hold on to this feeling.

Northwestern finally won its first bowl game since 1949. And while some may scoff at the 2013 Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl champion for a win in a “lesser” bowl game, NU fans deserve to savor the end of a heart-wrenching journey.

They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. NU lost three times this year, each time having a lead in the fourth quarter, two of them with a double-digit lead.

Entering today’s game, the bowl drought was in its 64th year.  And for a minute, it looked like more heartbreak was imminent. The Wildcats led 27-13 in the fourth quarter but then gave up an early touchdown, bringing the score to 27-20.

Every NU fan felt that same knot in their gut, the same one they felt when Roy Roundtree made a ridiculous Hail Mary catch in Ann Arbor or when Matt McGloin ran for a score on fourth down in Happy Valley.

But the Cats showed a resiliency built on the blood, sweat and tears of past mistakes. Instead of crumbling under the pressure of generations of disappointment, NU held on in the fourth quarter to assure itself its first postseason victory since the Truman administration.

As the clock ticked down at the end of the game, with the Cats holding a comfortable 14-point lead, I made my way down onto the field.

The players lifted coach Pat Fitzgerald on their shoulders. NU athletic director Jim Phillips ran around the sidelines looking for people to hug. University President Morton Schapiro excitedly greeted alums. And the loyal fans of all ages that traveled to the game cheered like they’ve never been able to before.

After accepting the trophy, Fitzgerald had some poignant words for the NU faithful.

“I always tell my players, ‘Act like you’ve been there before,’” Fitzgerald said. “But we’ve never been here before. But we’re here now — and we’re here to stay.”

Fitzgerald is most definitely here to stay. In addition to his recent contract extension, Fitzgerald also became the program’s winningest head coach with his first bowl victory.

Phillips, who turned down job opportunities at Illinois (his alma mater) and Stanford to remain at NU, finally saw his hard work pay off. He should now be rightly recognized as one of the biggest people responsible for orchestrating a new era of NU sports.

Schapiro, a fixture at all big sporting events, now has an easy sell to alumni when asking for donations to the school’s new athletic facility on the shore of Lake Michigan.

As for the fans, we endured. We went through all the highs and lows of an unbelievable season.

The Cats started 5-0 and had us thinking division championship. A loss to Penn State didn’t break our spirit.

Then Nebraska fans filled our stadium. And for over 45 minutes it looked like we would make those fans regret the day they decided to step into Evanston. But once again, a heartbreaking loss brought us down to earth.

NU also had the Big Ten’s “premiere” preseason team on the ropes in its home stadium. But Michigan defied the odds en route to an overtime victory, absolutely crushing every fan.

But we still expected to win every game. We expected to hold on to all of those leads. (Well, some people did.) But most importantly, we expected to win this bowl game.

So what does this win really mean for us?

I guess we’re not insane.

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